The Gunstock Area Commission and the Belknap County Legislative Delegation find themselves in an escalating dispute that could determine the future of the county-owned ski area.
At stake are major expansion plans and even whether some of the current commissioners will be removed from office.
The delegation plans a public meeting Tuesday to discuss actions of some of the commissioners, which Rep. Mike Sylvia, the delegation chairman, says “raise grave concerns and possible questions of criminal activity” that could be grounds for their removal. Sylvia expressed those concerns in a letter he sent Saturday to other members of the delegation.
No public testimony will be allowed, just like the last time the all-Republican delegation held a public meeting to consider issues involving Gunstock.
An underlying philosophical dispute between the commission that manages Gunstock and the delegation centers on whether running a ski area is a proper role for county government.
Some delegation members feel the public would be better served if the county leased the area to a private operator, while the commission majority would like to direct an expansion including a road to the top of the mountain, amenities at the summit, greatly expanded skiable terrain and a hotel.
Rep. Travis O’Hara said an attempt by some of his fellow members on the delegation to remove commissioners from office is actually a political attack and is not the proper way to navigate policy differences. He also said the delegation should allow public testimony regarding Gunstock.
“Honestly if the goal is to lease out Gunstock, I’m not opposed to it, but I’m opposed to the way they (some delegation members) are going about it,” he said. “I don’t like trying to remove commissioners for no reason just to get your way as fast as possible.
“They were appointed for a reason, they should serve their term as long as there is not just cause for removal.”
The 1959 state enabling law for Gunstock gives the delegation power to appoint Gunstock Area commissioners. They can also remove them for cause.
What constitutes “cause” is open to interpretation.
Rep. Norm Silber said it could be whatever the delegation deems it to be.
“If the members of the commission serve as good stewards of a county-owned property owned by the taxpayers and they stray from basic principles of good stewardship and are in fact profligate with taxpayer money, the optics as far as I’m concerned are that the delegation would be doing a disservice to the taxpayers who elected the delegation by not removing them,” Silber said.
Sylvia alleged other potential grounds for dismissal in his letter. He said the commission over the past year has “fostered a skepticism among observers in their adherence to open public meetings laws.”
Last month, the delegation rejected a request from four of the commissioners to dismiss a fifth commissioner, Peter Ness, over allegations that he had a conflict of interest in his attempts to sell software to the ski area and was insulting in his behavior toward Gunstock employees.
There was no indication commissioners arrived at the dismissal request in public session, Sylvia said.
“The RFD (request for dismissal) seems to have been produced to intimidate the delegation in an attempt to have them submit to the GAC (Gunstock Area Commission) demand to remove commissioner Ness,” Sylvia said in his letter. “These actions raise grave concerns and possible questions of criminal activity.”
His November 6 letter lists various criminal statutes that he said could apply -- official oppression, bribery in official and political matters and improper influence.
Sylvia did not return a call for comments.
Silber said there was nothing wrong with Sylvia sending out a letter to the delegation criticizing the commission before the upcoming meeting. Some argue that the public meeting would be the proper venue for such criticism.
“He can send out anything he wants, it’s a free country,” Silber said.
He also said it is Sylvia’s prerogative as delegation chairman on whether or not to allow public testimony at public meetings.
“The delegation in dealing with matters such as this is not in a position to hold a trial, which is basically what some of these folks want to do,” Silber said. “Anything to delay is their strategy.”